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Valentine's Day special: history's greatest love stories at sea

14 February 2022 • Written by Anne de Courcy

There’s an unmistakable romance to yachts, so it’s no surprise that some of the world’s most famous affairs began at sea. Anne de Courcy looks at the lovers whose maritime liaisons have secured a place in history, including the royal scandal between British King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson...

It was Coco Chanel who claimed that a yacht was the best place to start a love affair – words that she lived up to, starting her own 10-year liaison with the Duke of Westminster aboard his yacht, the black-hulled, piratical-looking schooner Flying Cloud. They had met in the Casino at Monte Carlo, when the Duke, who knew the woman Chanel was dining with, had come across to talk to her. The Duke, the richest man in England, was immediately fascinated by Chanel.

Flying Cloud, the four-masted schooner belonging to the Duke of Westminster, would set the scene for his love affair with fashion designer Coco Chanel
Credit: Getty Images

Beautiful elegant, witty and fiercely independent, she had climbed, step-by-step and man-by-man, from her deprived, poverty-stricken childhood to become the best-known dress designer in Europe, as well as immensely rich. Bendor, as the Duke was known, wooed Chanel with everything from jewels to salmon sent over from his Scottish estate. Finally she yielded, going aboard 86-metre Flying Cloud in the late spring of 1924.

It was a world of total luxury. As well as the four-poster beds, the crew of 40 and the silk curtains, Bendor had brought along a small orchestra so that the two of them could dance every night. Tall, blond and good-looking, he had houses everywhere, all ready for instant use – cars fuelled, food in the larder, servants in Grosvenor uniform – as he seldom stayed anywhere longer than three days and usually arrived without warning.

The romance between Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster lasted 10 years

With Bendor, Chanel became a close friend of Winston Churchill, who admired her greatly and visited her, sometimes with a member of his family, every time he came to Paris. And it was from the deck of Flying Cloud that Chanel spotted the piece of land on which she built her villa La Pausa – her only real home (in Paris she lived in the Ritz).

A few years after Bendor’s affair with Chanel was over, he offered to lend Flying Cloud to another man he knew, who would also be conducting a love affair on board. This, too, was to become a seminal trip. The man in question was King Edward VIII, who was deeply infatuated with Wallis Simpson, a 40-year-old married American who had already been divorced once. The English public knew nothing of the affair, although rumours had been buzzing round Europe and the US for some weeks. The King had originally planned to rent a villa, completely screened from the public gaze, but rumours of a bomb plot meant this was not considered safe and Flying Cloud was offered. She was turned down by Mrs Simpson, though, for not being comfortable enough.

The love affair between King Edward VIII and divorced American Wallis Simpson became public knowledge after the pair spent time on board Nahlin

Enter the rich and eccentric Lady Yule (she had a house full of stuffed creatures and an animal graveyard in her garden), for whom the 1,391-tonne Nahlin had been built as one of three impressive yachts. At 91.4 metres, Nahlin was the last word in luxury: she had a gymnasium, a dance floor, a bathroom for each of her eight staterooms and a top speed of more than 20 knots. Another advantage was that her 50 crew members had been selected for their sense of discretion as much as for their seamanship.

In August 1936, Lady Yule lent the yacht, freshly painted white from stem to stern, to the King for the cruise along the Adriatic Coast that alerted the world to his relationship with Wallis Simpson. On board there was no hiding it: the King and Mrs Simpson were in the best suite at one end of the yacht; all the guests were at the other. There were the usual demands from the couple: all the books had to be removed from the library in order to produce an extra bedroom, a supply of bottles laid on as well as golf balls for the King to hit into the sea.

On Nahlin, King Edward VIII and Simpson cruised along the Adriatic Coast
Credit: Adobe Stock

With Nahlin calling at port after port and endless photographs of the King and Mrs Simpson together, in the eyes of the foreign press there was no doubt that the two were a couple. Wherever they went, crowds of sightseers gathered on the quay and the cruise became the biggest holiday attraction in Europe, though not everyone on board enjoyed it so much.

“Wallis is wearing very badly,” wrote Lady Diana Cooper, one of the guests, to a friend, adding: “It’s impossible to enjoy antiquities with people who won’t land for them and who call Delphi Delhi.” As the world knows, within four months the King had abdicated; in another six the pair would be married.

King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson tender in to port along the Dalmation coast

A yacht was also responsible for the public declaration of the affair between a beautiful young actress and a media tycoon 30 years her senior. Marion Davies was a slender, pretty blonde with large blue eyes, wonderful skin and a warm and happy personality. At school, a slight stutter had so held her back that she had turned to the world of make-believe – in other words, acting, at which she became successful almost instantly. By 1917, when she was 20, she was offered a job by Florenz Ziegfeld in his Follies and she also had the chance of appearing in a new branch of entertainment, the motion picture.

The married media mogul William Randolph Hearst, then 53, fell for her immediately. It was rumoured that he took two seats at the Follies every night, one for himself and one for his hat. He showered Davies with gifts, promoted her career and watched over her. By 1920 he was talking to her daily, writing her poetry and had refurbished a townhouse for her mother and sisters. For him, it was true love – but it was also an era when divorce seemed out of the question.

Film star Marion Davies was wooed by media mogul William Randolph Hearst while on board Oneida, his 61-metre steam yacht

By 1921, Hearst, then an influential tycoon in the film and publishing worlds, was tired of juggling time between his wife and his mistress and longed to spend more time with his beloved Marion. He asked her, her sister, mother and another man and his daughter to join him on his yacht Oneida for a private screening of the film Enchantment in which Davies starred. Once they were in open water, he suggested they all go to Mexico for a holiday at his expense. They agreed. But an afternoon watching a film in the safe waters of New York harbour was one thing, a fortnight in the languorous blue waters of the Caribbean quite another. Now, his wife, Millicent, who was left behind, had to face the fact that from now on Davies was a “non- negotiable” part of his life.

On another cruise, with Charlie Chaplin as a guest, Davies confided in the legendary comic actor’s second wife, Lita Grey. “God, I’d give everything I have to marry that silly old man,” she said. “Not for the money and security – he’s given me more than I’ll ever need. Not because he’s such cosy company, either. Most times, when he starts jawing, he bores me stiff. And certainly not because he’s so wonderful behind the barn. Why, I could find a million better lays any Wednesday. No, you know what he gives me, sugar? He gives me the feeling I’m worth something to him. He’s kind and he’s good to me, and I’d never walk out on him.” And she never did.

The 99 metre Christina, which set the scene for Aristotle Onassis' love affairs, has since been revived as Christina O

That’s not to say that most wouldn’t have found two weeks on Christina rather enjoyable as well. It had cost the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis more than £3 million to convert a 99.2-metre Canadian frigate into a luxury yacht. There were frescoes of the family on the dining room walls, bar stools covered with white whale foreskins (“Madame, you are now sitting on the largest penis in the world,” Ari told the film star Greta Garbo) and the temperature of the water in the swimming pool was electronically controlled. In Ari’s four-room suite there was a teak-panelled study, a sunken blue Siena marble tub and Venetian mirrored walls.

Christina was the setting for three of Ari’s love affairs that became globally famous. The first was with opera’s greatest celebrity, the renowned soprano Maria Callas. They had met in 1957, when Ari began by inviting Callas back to the Christina for scrambled eggs and champagne, but her husband, Giovanni Meneghini, refused on behalf of them both. This did not stop Ari showering Callas with flowers and telephone calls to persuade the couple to come on a cruise on Christina in the summer of 1959, which they finally accepted. Also on board were Winston Churchill, his doctor, his secretary, Churchill’s pet canary Toby and Ari’s daughter Christina (after whom the yacht was named).

It was on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht Christina that his affair with opera singer Maria Callas was revealed

Meneghini, suspicious and seasick, did not know that Callas and Ari had already become lovers earlier in the year but several of those on the cruise noticed the undercurrents of jealousy and intrigue. Then, when Christina reached Istanbul, everything changed. Callas no longer attempted to hide the fact that she was in the grip of a love both passionate and physical; for the 53-year-old Ari it was a triumph not only to have conquered a woman almost 20 years younger but one who was the most famous singer in the world. At a ball given in Athens, the two hardly left each other’s side, with Callas arriving back on the Christina at 9am to her husband’s 4am. A blistering row ensued; then, one dawn when Christina was unable to sleep, she went for a stroll and saw her father and Callas making love in the saloon.

Soon the scandal was worldwide, with paparazzi pursuing them everywhere. “What can I do?” asked the unhappy Meneghini while Ari merely remarked: “I am a sailor and these are things which sometimes happen to a sailor.” Both marriages broke up and the tempestuous affair continued for another eight years, with Callas treated as “la patronne” by the crew of Christina, until Ari dumped her for Lee Radziwill, the sister of President Jack Kennedy’s wife, Jackie.

Five years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie wed Onassis in Greece and a reception followed on board Christina

Then, after Jackie’s third child was born prematurely (in August 1963) and died, Radziwill, as the yacht’s reigning mistress, called her sister in Washington to invite her on a restorative cruise on Christina. Ari stocked it with eight varieties of caviar and the finest wines, as well as implementing the 60-strong crew with two hairdressers, three chefs, a Swedish masseuse and a small orchestra for evening dancing.

It was the turning point in their relationship. From now on, Jackie was the sister in whom Ari was interested. When, only a few months later, Jack Kennedy was assassinated, Ari’s focus on Jackie grew more intent but it took another cruise to complete the byzantine financial intricacies of the marriage negotiations. Saying “yes” on the Christina had never been so complicated...

This feature is taken from the February 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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